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Be My Victim: A Discussion with Laird Barron on Literary Horror and Anti-Intellectualism

As this is the season for giving, I’ve snagged some time with one of horror’s finest voices. It’s quite a gift, and NO you can’t exchange it for a Hello Kitty backpack.

Laird Barron has emerged as a major force in literary dark fiction over the past half decade, and he was gracious enough to swap some emails with me and discuss anti-intellectualism and the if/how/why it appears in the horror community.

Unwrap and enjoy.

LT: Growing up, I grooved on the straight-up pulp horror that was all over the bookracks at the local grocery; loved the horror comics I could find; found a home in the exploitation cinema of the 70s (though granted I discovered these on video cassette in the 80s); but I found an equal thrill in more complex works, books that were densely written and offered genuine human drama in and amongst the bouts of bloodshed. I think many readers are the same way, but in recent years there seems to be a backlash against “literary” works of dark fiction. My hope is, these protests come from a small audience whose voices have been amplified by the power of the internet. My fear is, the characterization of good horror fiction has been whittled down to a nub consisting of a few tired shock tactics that keep the surface reader entertained in between Tweets.

So I guess the place to start is, are we currently experiencing the anti-intellectualism I fear, and if so, what are its symptoms?

LB: As an author, I worry about a decline in literacy, and certainly dislike the marginalization of my specialty, the short story. I’m not convinced that anti-intellectualism per se is on the rise, although it’s present — it always has been. You tapped into my assessment of the situation: the internet tends to dramatize and amplify such things to the point where a few peanuts tossed from the gallery are distorted into an artillery fusillade.

Literary horror is at an odd juncture. On one hand, it’s experiencing a small and independent press renaissance. Scores of authors are working at an extraordinarily high level and are supported by numerous publishers in their endeavors. On the other hand, there’s a perception that the horror market in general is in decline. Industry pros tell me at every turn that horror is a rough sell, that unless it’s marketed in a certain way there’s a decided lack of interest on the part of chains.

In many ways, the most difficult aspect of working in dark fiction is the prevailing force of category horror fiction and cinema that caters to the lowest common denominator. It can be extremely difficult to reach that audience who might enjoy well-crafted horror, but don’t believe such a beast exists because dreck rises to the top commercially and basically overshadows and drowns out the rest of the field. Unfortunately, gratuitous violence and pornography have become the public face of horror. That’s good for a few artists, bad for everybody else. I’ve spoken with editors and readers who acknowledge that there must be examples of literary horror in the wild. They don’t have the heart to wade through the gore and rape fantasies to find those examples, however. That’s the real problem for the Glen Hirshbergs, Sarah Langans, and Ramsey Campbells of the field–too many potential readers are too disheartened to even risk trying them.

LT: And it has become increasingly difficult to know who you can believe when it comes to recommendations. When I first dove into horror publishing about nine years ago, I had no idea there was such a thriving small press. I’d visit message boards and read glowing recommendations for books and authors I hadn’t heard of. If the threads on those boards were to be believed – and I believed them – I expected to be reading absolutely brilliant, cutting edge horror titles. The books came. I read them. Soon… sadness ensued. A few of the books were excellent, a couple were good, but most were page-meet-flame infuriating. I began to see the friendly (if misguided) support, and the back scratching that was going on. Checking review sites didn’t help much, because many of the reviewers were reviewing friends, or were authors themselves, and there was the distinct impression said reviewers didn’t want to alienate anyone in the publishing food chain. So all reviews were positive to the point of raves. The incestuous nature of the community became apparent, and I began to see how difficult this wire was to balance. Difficult because new writers need support. They need encouragement, especially from their peers because many folks in their long-term support system – family, friends – might not understand or appreciate their fascination with dark material. But so much of this support now occurs in public, sometimes highly visible forums, and it is promoting a product – a book. These acts of kindness to a talent-in-the-making can be acts of cruelty to a reader.

LB: The signal to noise ratio can be problematic in any genre. Unfortunately, the anemic state of online reviewing doesn’t possess as much utility as we might hope for either. Horror literature tends to radicalize, and frequently the reaction to it is unadulterated praise, unadulterated scorn, or bewilderment. What these reactions have in common is that they are generally superficial, summations as opposed to full-blooded reviews. The end result is a sort of morass that the consumer gets lost in when seeking recommendations.

Looking at public message boards is a good way to risk one’s sanity. The horror/dark fantasy field is a tiny community with attendant strengths and weaknesses. Advocates of the genre are fiercely loyal, but that can also lead to a tendency to overcompensate, to circle the wagons against the legions of detractors, real and imagined. The desire to see a micropress underdog prevail, to share one’s knowledge of an underground or cult author, is powerful. All too often feelings of loyalty and goodwill toward fellow tribe members trumps critical assessment.

Complicating matters, the community is fractured into splinter groups that read and recommend almost exclusively within subsets of the horror genre — Lovecraft and Ligotti acolytes over here, Richard Laymon and Dean Koontz aficionados over there, My Favorite Unjustly Obscure Authors! ™ in the middle, and seldom do these disparate interests coincide, especially in a productive manner. Horror is a genre that trends toward isolationism in many respects and these islands of specialized interests tend to be ignorant or dismissive of one another.

That said, there are lights in the wilderness. Lucius Shepard is a veritable font of all things horror as is the Live Journal group the inferior 4+1; editor Ellen Datlow, and Paul Tremblay, to point out a couple more pros who read widely and aren’t shy about sharing their finds. Reading the Leaves and Grim Reviews are also exemplary review sites. A reader can’t go wrong combing through the old International Horror Guild and Shirley Jackson Awards ballots to seek out quality fiction.

LT: This goes beyond the readers, though. Readers are primarily in it for the entertainment value and some of them derive far more pleasure from action, gore, and sex than from the artistry of the story or the themes it tackles. Cool enough. Our culture gauges quality by commercial success, and it’s pretty clear that a story or book doesn’t have to be particularly well written to be popular. Everyone has their own buttons and they like having them fingered, but this attack on substance also comes from writers in the genre. Of course, all writers started out as readers, and it’s natural for them to pursue their interests in their writing, but it feels like a slap to the craft to hear a writer condemn craftsmanship and artistry.

LB: True enough; I wasn’t really thinking of the typical reader, in any event. Obviously published work is subject to criticism, but self indulgent attacks on modes of literature peeve me. I certainly don’t see eye to eye with authors who dismiss or disparage a piece of fiction simply because they don’t care for second person, present tense, non-standard punctuation, non linear progression, or whatever.

Sometimes it’s just an expression of clannishness, or territorial pissing. I wince at Stephen King’s burger and fries metaphor as I wince at the outrage expressed by a colleague over the big fat payday Elizabeth Kostova received for The Historian. How dare this new, pretentiously literary interloper get paid for trespassing into our territory? And of course there were complaints of genre purity being violated when Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was recommended for horror and science fiction ballots. You could see those coming a mile away. McCarthy’s status as perhaps the premiere living American novelist set him up for a pelting from the peanut gallery. It was inevitable given the genre preserve’s climate of Us v. Them.

Other colleagues have publicly questioned the legitimacy of the late lamented International Horror Guild Awards and the newer Shirley Jackson Awards, accusing the judges in some cases of reading too narrowly: “What are all these stories from F&SF doing here? This is supposed to be a horror award, not a fantasy award!” Or conversely, “What the hell are all these foreign and obscure titles doing here? I haven’t heard of this stuff!” But in neither case addressing the relative literary merits of the nominees. I was on a panel with a famous editor who opined that horror was being destroyed by the eclectic nature of what’s being published today. Very much a “If it isn’t Lovecraft, it’s crap!” philosophy. That kind of provincial and myopic viewpoint is discouraging, especially from an editor. Our field has much more to fear from arch conservatism that leads to stagnancy and decline than it does from over-inclusiveness. As if the latter would ever become an epidemic!

All this said, this kind of negativity toward style, if not substance, doesn’t seem typical. There’s a reason why first rate stylists such as Peter Straub, Jeff VanderMeer, and Glen Hirshberg are doing well, or why Don Tumasonis, Paul Tremblay, and Sarah Langan are stars ascendant–along with dozens more hot new authors of literary horror. It’s not all booing and hissing against top-flight artistry by any means. We’ve the independent press revival to thank.

LT: Ah, The Road. I threw a few tantrums because of the lists and ballots on which it didn’t appear. There were some interesting (kindest euphemism available) arguments for why certain people didn’t consider it a “horror novel,” and those rationalizations were real head scratchers. I’ve always considered horror a powerhouse genre because it has such breadth – from down and dirty gorefests to deep-as-hell, thought-provoking chillers, with everything in between and innumerable combinations of intensities, elements and styles. It’s a big toybox, and I wanna play with as many toys as possible. I suppose not everyone agrees.

Alas, our time (and word count) runs short. Laird, sing us out with some literary titles you think readers should track down.

LB: Agreed regarding the width and breadth of horror. My fascination with the genre stems in part from its ubiquity, its versatility. Dread and terror are awe inducing and we live with these feelings to one degree or another, are inextricably linked to these primal forces. It’s only natural for the sane man to sublimate his animal response to the horrors of the waking world into something manageable, such as art.

Regarding book recommendations:

Peter Straub’s Ghost Story; he’s written many fine novels, but that’s the one that clicked with me as a young man. Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters by John Langan; marvelous stories in the vein of MR James, Lovecraft, and Barker. The Missing by Sarah Langan; this novel reminds me a lot of early Stephen King, except it’s slicker and meaner than anything King did in the ’70s. In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay; a collection of weird, surreal tales of dark fantasy. Paul is one of the great stylists of our genre. The Ones that Got Away by Stephen Graham Jones; another superb wordsmith and probably among the elite writers in the field. Joe Pulver’s Sin & Ashes is a hardboiled/noir/horror collection that reads like prose poetry; a psychedelic hybrid of James Ellroy, William Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft. It’ll rattle your brain. One more to keep an eye out for in 2011 is Engines of Desire by newcomer Livia Llewellyn. This collection, along with the Jones, is brutal and disturbing, nightmare inducing. Some of the darkest, hardest hitting work I’ve read.

LT: So there’s your shopping list folks – holiday or otherwise. Have a great New Year, and we’ll see you in 2011!

Laird Barron is the author of two collections: The Imago Sequence, and Occultation; both from Night Shade Books. His work appears in places such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, Lovecraft Unbound, Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror, Clockwork Phoenix, and The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has also been reprinted in numerous year’s-best anthologies. Laird lives in Olympia, Washington.

Lee Thomas – is the award-winning author of Stained, The Dust of Wonderland, and In the Closet, Under the Bed. His next novel is The German, forthcoming from Lethe Press in March 2011.

3 Comments on Be My Victim: A Discussion with Laird Barron on Literary Horror and Anti-Intellectualism

  1. Fantastic and insightful interview, gentlemen!

  2. Kudos!

    An interesting and thoughtful and truthful discussion on horror stories,especially the part about friends reviewing friends and authors reviewing other authors.  Sadly,also, I doubt that we will ever eliminate the “splintering” or snobishness, as in I will read this author but never THIS author, from the genre.

    I’m glad to see Mr. Barron mention the small underappreciated site The Grim Review. I have the site bookmarked as a favorite and enjoy it daily. Whoever runs the site deserves notice for their dedication and the enjoyable nature of their reviews.

    The remarks about the undervaluation of short stories are dead on and for someone like myself who enjoys this medium more than novels I am glad to see some light brought to the subject and would enjoy further discussion on this point.

    Thanks Mr. Thomas I was sorry to see this article come to a close and I am also going to read those collections Mr. Barron mentioned which I haven’t read already.

  3. Thank you for this, gentlemen. But are you allowed to make intelligent, insightful observations about the genre? Won’t you get into trouble?

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